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Modern GPS Navigation

Navigating by GPS requires several things - a map (either digital or in print) showing the terrain you will be traversing, a track or route showing how to cross the terrain successfully, and a device with a GPS and software showing your location. This site includes maps for most of the locations shown. It also includes tracks/routes to help you navigate to your destination. Finally, most of the photos on the site include location data in the form of latitude and longitude, i.e. they are geocoded.

Two types of maps are generally included for each location on this site, a satellite image of the area, in the form of a Google map, and a USGS 24K topographic map.

In addition to these maps, this site also shows various points of interest such as scenic overlooks (waypoints), and tracks or routes to help you get to these points of interest. The total of all the waypoint, track and route data I'll refer to as a position list. Position lists can be downloaded from this site in any of three formats: KML (Google Earth Keyhole Markup Language), KMZ (compressed KML files possibly including image data), and GPX (GPS eXchange Format). There are many other position list formats in use by various GPS manufacturers. The free program GPS Babel can be used to easily convert from one format to another. GPS Babel can be downloaded from here.

GPS Recommendations

While it is possible to print out the maps/position lists on this site and use them on paper only, the maps are best used in conjunction with a GPS. Some devices with a GPS include (from least functionality to most):

If you do not already have a GPS or phone with a GPS I suggest you purchase an Android or Apple phone with a big screen, or a small Android tablet. Android tablets weigh less than one pound and have high resolution displays, well above those of more expensive and less functional mapping GPS devices. Get a tablet with as much memory as possible, or one than has a micro sdxc slot for external memory expansion. Map files can be large, for example downloaded aerial maps can be as big as 512MB, and some of the merged topo maps on this site exceed 100MB in size.

What I use

Hardware - I use my Samsung Galaxy Note 4 to navigate while hiking. I sometimes carry a backup GPS when the trail is long or unfamiliar or if I am hiking off-trail. My backup GPS is a Samsung 8.4 inch tablet. When I start hiking I turn my phone/tablet's GPS on and mark the trailhead. Battery life on the phone is excellent - 12 hours at least if I have wifi and phone service off. External batteries can be used to recharge the phone when backpacking. I use the same software and maps on both my phone and tablet so except for the smaller screen they are interchangeable. Before starting out I download the maps needed for the day, and also any KML files needed. KML files can be downloaded from this site, from other websites, or created in Google Maps. When driving to the trailhead I use my tablet for off-road navigation. The tablet is mounted in the car on a holder and allows me to quickly check that I am following the correct road when driving in the backcountry. When hiking my phone and/or tablet's GPS is on all the time with a short screen time-out. Phone service and Wifi are turned off to save battery power. I keep the screen brightness fairly low as well, to save on battery life. The screen can usually be easily viewed outside even in sunny conditions if I can find shade. On a few rare occasions I have had to use my jacket to make some shade so I could read the GPS.

Finally, I sometimes carry a good sighting compass with a tripod mount. A compass is useful for navigation, backup, and for planning future shots.

Software - On my phone I use GPS Test Plus ($2.99) to verify that the GPS is on, to check the satellites in view and in use, to check position accuracy, and to retrieve latitude and longitude, current local and UTM (Greenwich) time, sunrise/sunset times, altitude, heading, and speed.

For navigation/map viewing I primarily use the free android application Oruxmaps. With this amazing application you can download Openstreetmap and USGS topo maps for offline use, and it reads KML and GPX files. It also reads altitude files (.hgt or dem format) so you can view 3D maps, or see the altitude of any point on the map. The Oruxmaps manual contains a full list of the map formats that Oruxmaps understands. Prior to hiking I download a USGS 24K map(s) from Topoquest, convert it to Oruxmap format as described below, and download the resulting map to my phone / tablet. Occasionally I also download the Openstreetmap files, or aerial imagery.

Another good mapping application is PDF Maps by Avenza. This application is free for both Android and Apple phones and tablets. USGS 24K maps, National Park Maps, US Forest Service, and many other maps can be downloaded for free in the app. Avenza also has many maps for sale including those by National Geographic (Trails Illustrated). Avenza is not as full featured as Oruxmaps but it handles most needs and is recommended, especially for Apple phones and tablets. Note that the iPad and Mini iPad with wifi only do not contain a GPS and are not suitable for backcountry navigation. If you want to navigate with an iPad be sure to get a 3G / 4G version, or pair the iPad with a bluetooth GPS.

Using Position Lists

Start by downloading either the GPX, KML, or KMZ file from this site or another site, or create your own. Other sites with track/route information include hikearizona.com, gpsies.com, alltrails.com, everytrail.com, and many many others. Sometimes I need to create routes myself. I usually use Google Maps for this, but Bing Maps and Google Earth also work. To download a KMZ, KML, or GPX file from this site just click as shown in the next screen. In IE you need to right click and choose Save Target As.

Download a Map

Once you have downloaded the position list you need to copy it to your GPS. Most GPS devices can read GPX files, and many can read KML files, but some work with their own formats only. If this is the case you need to convert the GPX or KML to a format your GPS can understand. The best program for this is the free program GPS Babel. Using GPS Babel is very easy - you just need to specify input and output formats and file names, and click Apply:

GPS Babel input screen

Note that GPS Babel has no option for KMZ files. A KMZ file is often just a zipped KML file. To work with a KMZ file just unzip it using Winzip or Winrar. It will become a KML file. KMZ files sometimes contain images; image data will be lost when converting to a KML format.

Once you have the position list file in a format that your GPS can understand you need to copy or send it to your device. For basic and mapping GPS devices you'll need to refer to the GPS manual. For phones and tablets just copy the file from your PC to the appropriate directory on your tablet. On my tablet and phone I've created a directory on my SD card called Oruxmaps. Under it are three main subdirectories:

To use a KML file with Oruxmaps on my tablet I just copy the KML file to the above tracklogs directory on the tablet.

Google Maps

Last year Google updated its maps software to support multiple layers. A layer is a group of related items within a map. For example, the Wirepass Trailhead map on this site is now divided into several layers, one showing how to get to The Wave itself , one with directions for Top Rock, one for locations in the West Side of the permit area, one for actual GPS tracks, etc. Layers help users zero in on just the information they need, and allows them to ignore irrelevant parts of the map. For example, if a user is only going to The Wave, and will not be going to Top Rock, they can turn the Top Rock layer off. Many of the maps on this website now have several layers.

Here is a screen shot from the Coyote Buttes North Maps page:

Map with Layers

The layers panel is shown on the left side. I have circled some of the main controls on the page. Clicking on the control numbered 1 on the upper left expands or collapses the layers panel

Faint lines followed by a bold heading with a check box distinguish the different layers on the map. Clicking on any item shows where it is on the map, and a description if available. Here is a screenshot after clicking on The Wave on the left side of the screen:

Map with details about a location

By clicking on the check boxes next to each layer you can control the visibility of each layer.

Control 2 in the first screen capture controls whether you see an image of the area, or a road map.

Control 3 Sharing Button can be used to share the map on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter. It can also be used to print out the map, or to download a KML file or KMZ file of an individual layer. KMZ files include custom icons such as icons representing cars, hikers, cameras, ...; KML files cannot include custom icons.

Control 4 Full Screen Button opens the map by itself in your browser and is useful for viewing more detail. It also provides you with a search box.

When the layers panel is closed you can zoom in or out on the map using control5 Zoom Control. The scroll wheel on your mouse may also zoom. You can pan on the map by holding the left mouse key down and dragging.

Google Earth Pro

Google My Maps has some significant limitations. There is no way to get either the elevation or latitude/longitude of a point of interest on the map easily. Also you cannot determine the distance between two points, or the elevation profile of the line between them. If you need this type of detailed information I recommend you download the KMZ file from the site and then open it in Google Earth. Google Earth can be freely downloaded here . Google Earth shows the GPS coordinates and the elevation of the map point under the cursor on the lower right side of the screen. Right clicking on a point of interest and choosing Properties will bring up a window showing its latitude and longitude.

Google Earth can also read kmz files whereas Google maps cannot. Most mobile mapping software also cannot read kmz files.

For a route or track I suggest you click on "Show Elevation Profile", this brings up a window containing the track length, the elevation, and the percent grade at any point along the track. Knowing the percent grade can be extremely useful when planning a hike or off-road trip.

The KML files for tracks/routes on this site are especially useful when used in conjunction with the USGS 24K maps (see below). For example, you can load the KMZ file for Coyote Buttes North into Google Earth, and also load the USGS 24K maps for Coyote Buttes into Google Earth. This will allow you to check which USGS 24K map contains a point of interest or the route to it, to discover new POIs, or find a route to a particular POI.

Google Earth with KMZ overlay

If you want to see the underlying image without the overlay just uncheck the upper box circled in red on the left side of Google Earth. Alternatively you can drag the layer transparency slider (the lower box circled in red) to the left.

National Park Service Maps

The standard National Park Maps handed to visitors at entrance stations are available in digital form at http://www.nps.gov/hfc/cfm/carto-atoz-geopdf.cfm. They are distributed as GeoPDF files. GeoPDF formatted maps cannot be read by most mapping programs. They can be converted to GeoTiff, KMZ, and Oruxmap formats using the program MAPC2MAPC. In the MAPC2MAPC Program Preferences and Settings Load tab make sure that "Crop KAP and PDF maps when loading is unchecked" or you will not get the full map when converting.

USGS 24K (7.5 minute) Topographic Maps

USGS 24K topo maps are not copyrighted and can be freely distributed. There are four primary sources of free USGS topo maps, libremap.org, topoquest.com, pickatrail.com, and the USGS itself. The maps on Topoquest and Libremaps are identical and are in GeoTiff format. The maps from the USGS and pickatrail.com are more recent and are of a different format. Note - As of December, 2015 the pickatrail maps are offline and cannot be accessed. It is not known when they will become available again. Topoquest / Libremap maps are the historical 24K maps that most of us are familiar with. These maps generally show more roads and feature names than the newer maps from pickatrail. The newer maps show an image of the area, but far fewer roads and features. Pickatrail maps contain layers whose visibility can be turned on or off. USGS maps from the National Maps Database are in GeoPDF format.

I generally prefer the Topoquest maps in GeoTiff format. This format can be read by a large variety of mapping programs. In addition to the GeoTiff maps I also provide KMZ files on this site. KMZ files can be overlaid onto Google Earth. In this way you can easily see how the topo map relates to the Google Earth image. To do this download the KMZ file, and double click on it to view it in Google Earth. Here's a sample of what the result looks like in Google Earth:

Google Earth with KMZ overlay

If you want to see the underlying image without the overlay just uncheck the upper box circled in red on the left side of Google Earth. Alternatively you can drag the layer transparency slider (the lower box circled in red) to the left.

Also available below are "decollared" USGS 24K maps. USGS topo maps contain a white border (called the collar) which contains information such as the map name, names of neighboring maps, date the map was created, latitude and longitude reference lines, ... While collars are very useful on printed maps, the information on the collar is much less useful for computer use. Maps with the collar removed can also be downloaded from the table below.

In addition to maps formatted as KMZ files I have also included maps that can be read by two different mobile mapping programs. The first program is Oruxmaps. Oruxmaps is a free android application. It can display maps, waypoints, routes, and tracks on an android phone or tablet. The second program is PDF Maps by Avenza. PDF Maps is available for both Apple and Android phones and tablets. PDF Maps is not as full featured as Oruxmaps but it runs on both Apple devices and Android. It has a wide variety of available maps, either free, or for purchase. Free USGS 24K topo maps can be downloaded in PDF Maps by clicking on the Cart button and searching for the map. The resulting map will have a collar and will be stored in the devices internal storage. Note that the Geo TIFF files on libremap.org can be loaded into PDF Maps directly, no conversion is needed. They can also be loaded into the phone or tablets external storage whereas maps downloaded by PDF Maps directly can only reside in internal storage.

To use the maps below in either Oruxmaps or PDF Maps download the map to your PC. Then copy the map into the oruxmaps/map directory on your android phone or tablet, or the Avenza/files directory. You will then be able to navigate using the downloaded topo map and GPS. The maps below were created using two PC programs. The first is G-Raster available here. A free feature limited demo version is available, or you can access all features for a one-time charge of $5 US. G-Raster is used to create the KMZ files below and to remove the collars on USGS topo maps. The second program is MAPC2MAPC which costs roughly $24. MAPC2MAPC can convert many GPS formats into formats usable on mobile devices. It can also be used to merge several maps together into one map, and has a batch file creation feature. We use it to create Oruxmap and PDF Maps formatted files, and to create merged maps. Both programs can also be used to create Garmin formatted files viewable on Garmin mapping GPS devices. If you create your own mobile maps from USGS 24K downloads I highly recommend both G-Raster and MAPC2MAPC.

Conversion of USGS 24K GeoTiffs to Oruxmaps and PDF Maps formats was done as follows:

Conversion Details

Merging several USGS 24K topo maps into a single large map

You can output a merged map consisting of several adjacent USGS 24K maps using MAPC2MAPC. For example, I created a merge of all of the Adeii Eichii Cliffs maps on this site. The resulting file was a merge of 20 individual 24K maps and covered an area of over 1,200 square miles. A normal 24K USGS map covers an area of 60 square miles. I checked both the Oruxmap and PDF Maps formatted versions of the merged maps on my android phone. In both PDF Maps and Oruxmaps the merged map scrolled quickly and seamlessly over the entire area. The only downside to the merged map was that the initial import into Avenza's PDF maps on the phone occurred very slowly, the phone taking over fifteen minutes to convert the Geotiff to Avenza PDF maps format. The Oruxmap import was instantaneous as no conversion was necessary before the map could be used.

To create a merged map start with decollared KMZ maps, easily created using G-Raster as discussed above. Once you have the decollared maps to be merged open MAPC2MAPC and exit Wizard Mode. To exit Wizard mode click on the menu button in the upper right of the Wizard screen. Select MergeMaps on the top menu and load the first decollared map to be merged. Continue to load maps until all of the maps are input. Then select View to verify that all of the maps have been included. Finally output your map using Save. Save creates a .png file together with a world map file (.tfw). The .tfw file can be opened in MAPC2MAPC and then converted to other more convenient file formats. I have created merged maps of up to 30 USGS 24K maps. Perhaps the only issue I ran into was in Yosemite. Yosemite maps, even though they cover 7.5 minutes of area like other USGS 245K maps, are of higher resolution than most other USGS maps. A typical Yosemite map had pixel dimensions of about 8000 x 10500, versus other USGS maps with resolutions of about 5300 x 6700. When I created a large merge map for Yosemite the output file was, to my surprise, created in B&W. I was able to avoid this by scaling the input maps down by a factor of 65% before merging. Maps can be rescaled in MAPC2MAPC by loading the map and choosing "Make changes to the map" and then "Rescale the map". After rescaling the resulting Yosemite maps had about the same resolution as other USGS maps and the merge proceeded normally.

Full information on how to merge maps using MAPC2MAPC can be found here http://www.the-thorns.org.uk/mapping/MAPMERGE.pdf.

Garmin Mapping GPS devices and Custom Maps

The KMZ files on this site are not fully compatible with Garmin mapping devices and custom maps. While Garmin can read KMZ files there are several restrictions. For example, tile size of a Garmin custom map can be at most 1 megapixel (1024x1024), and the custom map can have at most 100 tiles. The KMZ files on this site have very large tiles (very often only one tile covers the entire map, tile sizes of 8,192 x 8,192 are used for some of the merged maps). This choice was made to facilitate speed of import into Google Earth. Garmin will either not be able to read these files, will draw maps very slowly, or resolution will be reduced. Further discussion of the limitations of Garmin Custom Maps can be found on Garmin's support site.

If you do need to work with Garmin custom maps, I suggest you download a GeoTiff or kmz file from this site or another online source and run MAPC2MAPC choosing Garmin custom map KMZ as the output type.

 


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